Ugly Betty saved me.
Yes, one Latina, a Guadalajara poncho, braces, and a chunky block fringe transformed the way I interacted with my heritage. I have no real recollection of when I first became aware of the show but I would watch it religiously. The show always aired late at night and as a child my Mom would take my glasses away from me to stop me from watching TV but this would have the opposite effect. Instead, I would stand 3cm from the screen transfixed. Transfixed by the world of fashion and by Betty…the slightly unconventional character that was penetrating the industry. Betty was more than just a character, for a mixed-race woman like me that felt underrepresented she represented hope that people from the Latinx community could be more than a few rinsed and repeated stereotypes.
When I saw Betty it felt like I saw myself. She had olive skin, braces, bold glasses, and a slightly frumpy style that I unabashedly took some inspiration from. For so many this was the first time that they had seen a Latin character take the lead in a show that didn’t focus entirely on her sexuality or fall victim to the outdated tropes that portray Latin American women as sassy and sultry. Though Hilda (Betty’s older sister) did in some ways nod to this archetype it didn’t feel like this was her only trait. The personal growth she experienced throughout the series meant that her sexuality didn’t override her importance as a representation of modern-day Latinas living in the US.
A visit to a car boot sale made me the proud owner of three series alongside a fake Louis Vuitton bag (that I may or may not have believed to be real at £5). These DVDs soon became the holy trinity for me caught between Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. In its broadest sense, Ugly Betty showed me that womxn of colour could have aspirations and dreams and make them a reality. So often it seems as though our hopes can only seem to be just that but this story is woven beautifully between the (at times toxic) environment of MODE and the comforting haven of the Suarez home reminding us that anything can be possible.
As a working-class mixed-race woman, I had almost the reverse upbringing. Raised in a very British household I have always found it to be the greatest challenge at times to authentically understand my Venezuelan heritage. Growing up so many of the industries I aspired towards were overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and male. Times certainly are changing but when you lack authentic role models it can be increasingly difficult to believe in yourself enough to not allow the white noise of the lack of diversity to deter you from your chosen path. Media will always be an escape for me and this series represented one of the greatest. I think Ugly Betty was one of the first times that a western TV show had been centred on a Latin family with a Latina being the main character.
Betty embraced her culture and much like me, felt caught between the two, of wanting to be a part of MODE without letting go of who she inherently was. For me, the pride she had for her heritage was in a moment inspiring and emotional because in a world where we can feel so influenced by trends and validation from others- Betty didn’t ever seek to bend or conform. With her thick hair, full eyebrows, and clothes that would constantly be critiqued, she pushed forward. At school, I remember being told I had caterpillar eyebrows which made little sense then and still doesn’t now. I remember feeling insecure because of my ‘full’ facial features that didn’t necessarily look the same as my peers.
Seeing a character with features like mine gave me something to relate to but not just in terms of personal vanity but more importantly in relation to career goals. I was the first in my generation to go to university and even though I didn’t go to my first seminar in a brightly coloured poncho, I did carry a kind of imposter syndrome that took a while to unravel and let go of.
The power of Ugly Betty is immense and its lasting legacy shouldn’t end with the credits of the final episode. As a character, she embodied the spirit that we should all strive to have. A proud Latina, she was confident in who she was and steadfast in her belief that she could have anything she wanted. My inspiration then was Betty and as an older arguably wiser woman I hope to continue to channel her unwavering self-confidence. Dubbed an ‘unlikely Latina heroine’, I challenge this statement for future shows to continue paving the way for more strong independent diverse women that won’t ever be ‘unlikely’ but rather the exact heroine’s generations need.